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Mobile Goes Mainstream

A more broadly accepted concept than ever, the arrival of ubiquitous mobile learning in K12 is well under way.
California Secretary of Education Bonnie Reiss discusses an iPad Algebra course with a student at the September announcement of the Long Beach Unified mobile pilot program.

Mobile learning—the use of mobile devices for educational purposes by students—is rapidly moving from an experimental initiative by a few innovative districts over the last five years to a broadly accepted concept in K12. The latest research and surveys, results of pilot programs, and analysis of trends in both public education and the broader technology industry all indicate that ubiquitous mobile learning—with mobile devices in every student’s hands and used in every classroom, school and district in the country—is advancing quickly and will arrive faster than many expected.

Change in Perception

Student access to mobile devices is increasing at exponential speed, and attitudes toward the potential for smartphones and other mobile devices to enhance learning—while saving districts money—are changing just as quickly. Education organization Project Tomorrow’s annual Speak Up research project for 2010, which surveyed over 350,000 K12 students, parents and administrators from 5,757 schools and 1,215 districts, found that high school students’ access to smartphones had more than tripled since 2006. In addition, the survey found that some 62 percent of parents would purchase a mobile device for their child if their school incorporated them for educational purposes, and some 74 percent of administrators now believe that mobile devices can “increase student engagement in school and learning.”

The report was released at the Wireless EdTech Conference held October 29 in Washington, D.C., which featured speakers such as Harvard University professor Chris Dede, Qualcomm chairman and CEO Paul E. Jacobs, Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski. “At the conference last year there were a lot of naysayers, but this year was much more positive,” says Kristin Atkins, senior manager of government affairs at Qualcomm, one of the sponsors of the conference. “We’re seeing a sea change in the acceptance of mobile technology.”

Shawn Gross, project director for the mobile learning research program Project K-Nect, agrees. “The objections to using these types of devices in schools are quickly dissolving,” he says. “We’ve been absolutely ecstatic about the changes in perceptions that have occurred in such a short time span.” Project K-Nect began in 2006 as a pilot program that provided mobile devices to at-risk high school students without Internet access in the state of North Carolina, but it has since expanded nationally to research how to implement mobile learning effectively in K12 education. “We’re reaching a point now where administrators are accepting of mobile learning in their schools,” he says.

“The initial backlash was based on fear,” says Cathie Norris, District Administration columnist, Regents professor at the University of North Texas and co-founder of mobile learning developer GoKnow. “But now administrators are realizing mobile devices do not create a “Wild West” atmosphere in the classroom, but can in fact be very useful.”

An Inevitable Change

For many, the shift toward embracing mobile learning has had a feeling of inevitability. In the Dysart (Ariz.) Unified School District #89, the school board voted unanimously in September to allow students to use their smartphones in class for online research, to work on assignments, or for other educational purposes, at the discretion of each classroom teacher.

“We realized that for us to continue helping students develop 21st-century skills, to help them learn how to access information in the way they will in the future, we were not going to be able to have the budget or capacity to add devices as rapidly as we wish we could,” says Superintendent Gail Pletnick. “But we knew those resources were already in the hands of students, and frankly, we knew they were bringing them into school anyway. So we wanted to provide the opportunity for students to use these tools to enhance their education.”

An elementary school teacher in the Arlington County (Va.) Public Schools using a set of iPads with her students as part of the district's mobile pilot program.

Joe Griffin, chief technology officer for the Keller (Texas) Independent School District, faced a similar situation: “Like most districts, we don’t have the budget for ongoing technology purchases. We realized if we don’t allow students to bring in and use their own devices, we’re not going to be able to keep up.”

“Students are going to push and push on this,” says Elliot Soloway, District Administration columnist, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, co-founder of GoKnow and an international authority on mobile learning. “The change is happening exponentially. Three years from now, 75 percent of students will have smartphones. Schools will have to respond.”

The Speak Up survey found that “the reality of school budgets” is a driver of adoption, but it also found that some 78 percent of students in grades 6-12 who owned smartphones said they prefer to use their own device over any technology supplied by their school. In the Chicago Public Schools, for example, the Mikva Challenge Council, a student group that meets regularly with the superintendent to make suggestions on improving schools, recommended in October to relax the district’s ban on mobile phones to allow them to be used for learning. The group’s informal survey found that 86 percent of city students bring them to school despite the ban.

Education Industry Responding

As a result of these trends, the education industry is also rapidly shifting in a new direction, with multibillion-dollar corporations reorienting their business strategies as mobile technology is beginning to take hold in K12 even faster than some analysts anticipated. “In almost every school we talk to, everyone acknowledges that this is the direction education is heading now, and as a result, we’ve started to focus on the education market in the last year or two,” says Brandon Williams, education market lead at Motorola, which provides wireless networking systems for schools. Williams notes that the company has also decided to split into two main divisions, separating its consumer mobile technologies from corporate and education products, in part because of the growth in demand for more robust wireless networking in each of those markets.

“Mobile technology in schools is not going to happen--it is happening,” says Brett Frazier, senior vice president at learning platform developer Blackboard, which sponsored the Speak Up survey. “I don’t think that there is anything more revolutionary that is happening more rapidly than the adoption of mobile technology in learning,” agrees Peter Cohen, CEO of K12 curriculum at multimedia education publisher Pearson. “Our company has taken an entirely new approach to product development, and mobile technology is one of the keys to our new direction.”

High School Algebra students in the Onslow County (N.C.) School System collaborate using smartphones as part of Project K-Nect.

Content Creation

The effective use of mobile technologies also continues to develop, just as their acceptance and adoption spreads. One of the most promising developments is the ability of mobile devices to allow students to produce, rather than just consume, many types of content, all with one device. “Students are naturally content producers,” says Gross. “Mobile devices enable them to film videos, take pictures, create presentations, take notes or write papers, and upload and share them with their teacher or other students. It’s a two-way interactive process instead of one-way.”

Camilla Gagliolo, instructional technology coordinator in the Arlington County (Va.) Public Schools, has experimented with a variety of mobile devices in her schools for years, from Nintendo DS game systems, to smartphones, to the latest technology: a set of iPads. She says productivity tools such as Apple’s Pages, Keynote and Numbers applications, as well as Google Earth, Google Maps and National Geographic’s atlas applications, are particularly useful, for students to create presentations, reports, slide shows and more. “The apps are very inexpensive, and using them is more focused than just telling students to ‘go online’ to search for a topic and coming up with thousands of choices,” she says.

Keller ISD uses the learning platform Studywiz on its mobile devices across the district, and students are able to upload work, collaborate and complete assignments from their mobile devices because everything is completely online, Griffin says. “Students use their devices to take pictures, film videos, write documents, share their work, post it to their own collaboration site, comment on their own work, they can create. Those abilities mobile technologies give to author, to publish, to edit—-those are real-world applications.”

Immediate Assessment

Another capability of mobile learning that has excited educators and industry insiders alike is the ability to conduct immediate and ongoing assessment. If every student had a mobile device at all times, teachers could ask questions throughout class, for example, with students answering on their devices while they worked or as they heard a lesson, enabling the teacher to adjust instruction based on this constant assessment. Applications and Web sites giving this capability to smartphones are inexpensive, and one of the most popular, Poll Everywhere, is free to use for up to 30 students.

“Allowing teachers to have immediate feedback, to know if students are comprehending instruction, is one of the powers of mobile,” says Cohen from Pearson. “We spend billions on remediation in this country because testing and assessment are so occasional.”

Griffin says Keller is currently piloting a mobile assessment program. “This capability is so valuable, and dedicated assessment devices on the market are expensive. But with students using their own devices, it’s cheap and easy. Then teachers can gear instruction based on student needs right in the moment, instead of weeks after an exam. Mobile technology has been huge for that capability.”

The Arrival of the iPad

Mobile devices also continue to develop. Most notable of late was the dramatic arrival of Apple’s iPad tablet. Released in April 2010, millions of the portable touchscreen tablets were sold in the first several months. Many saw the potential for education applications immediately, iPad pilot programs in schools began appearing all over the country soon after the device came to market, and hundreds of Web seminars, conference workshops and professional development resources began appearing, focused on making the best use of the groundbreaking technology in schools.

Gagliolo purchased 40 iPads within months of its release for Arlington County. “There is a tremendous amount of excitement about it,” she says. “This is the easiest technology to use and implement that I’ve ever seen. We use them in one of our elementary schools as a pilot program, but an ideal future goal would be to have a set for every classroom.”

The Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District is in the midst of a yearlong pilot program in partnership with publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, testing the company’s new iPad application, HMH Fuse: Holt McDougal Algebra 1, on 140 of the devices between a middle school and a K8 school. The application enables students to answer practice questions, take notes, or watch video lessons on the device, and for teachers to track student performance in real time. “So far, response to the pilot has been excellent,” says Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser. “Students, parents and teachers are very excited about the potential for this new technology.” The success of the iPad has spawned a new computing segment, and competing touchscreen tablet computers are now available from Research In Motion, Samsung, ViewSonic and others, with many more slated to be released this year.

Device-Agnostic Future

Are tablet computers like the iPad the future of mobile learning? The experts say such a question reflects the old paradigm, a device-focused mentality that mobile learning will soon make obsolete. “I emphasize with all the districts I work with: Don’t obsess about the device, because there isn’t going to be one that ultimately wins,” says Gross. “Students have so many different devices: Today might be a tablet; tomorrow it could be something else. We can’t keep pace with how fast technology is changing, but the constant is that students have these devices.”

Soloway agrees. “People are used to focusing on devices, applications or Web sites in education, but that’s not the future with mobile. The future is ‘device agnostic.’ It will be an integrated learning environment we haven’t seen before, an educational operating system not yet developed that will work across every device.”

Many in the industry are planning for this future. “We are very invested in solutions that cover the landscape of devices and platforms,” says Blackboard’s Frazier. “We have changed as a company because of this reality,” says Pearson’s Cohen. “We’re hiring instructional designers and others who can make lessons and other content function consistently on any device.”

Even at the district level, being aware of a device-agnostic future influences decisions today. “We don’t even know what devices will be available in a few years, but we still have to be prepared to use those tools when they are,” says Dysart’s Pletnick, explaining why the district is allowing students to use their own devices.

Strategies for Success

So what should administrators do today to take advantage of mobile learning now and allow for it in the future? “Pilots are crucial,” says Soloway. “Get your cutting edge teachers out in front, getting some experience, so you can gently transition the whole district to a mobile environment. You can’t wait; we’re about to go through cataclysmic change.” Blackboard’s Frazier agrees. “Mobile is happening, so embrace it. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Even a small start will enable more broad adoption.”

The Dysart, Arlington County, Long Beach and Keller districts are all following this strategy. “It’s in its infancy right now, but our goal in the future is to find more avenues to use mobile devices, to continue gathering data, doing training, and eventually implement mobile learning evenly across the district,” says Pletnick. “As this iPad pilot succeeds, we will expand mobile learning out to other schools,” says Gagliolo. “We have five campuses, from elementary to high school, all piloting mobile programs,” says Keller’s Griffin. “Our plan is to test, take it slow, and work the kinks out. Then next year we’ll roll out mobile programs in all 38 campuses in the district.”

Overall, experts and educators agree on putting instruction first. “Ultimately it’s not about mobile in isolation. The technology needs to support the instructional strategy and not vice versa,” says Frazier. “The device is just an enabler. The differentiation is the quality of the instructional program that maximizes their use,” advises Pearson’s Cohen. “It goes back to your strategic plan. These tools have to be used for improving instruction,” says Griffin. “If your intention is to just put mobile devices into the same old way of thinking, you aren’t going to be successful.” DA

Kurt Eisele-Dyrli is products editor. For ongoing coverage of mobile learning, read DA’s blog and monthly column by experts Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris, Going Mobile.